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How to Mind the Future of a Mission-Critical World

By Micky Baca

Bob Wambach, senior director of product marketing for the EMC Storage Division, briefs executives of business process outsourcing provider ACS.
Bob Wambach, senior director of product marketing for the EMC Storage Division, briefs executives of business process outsourcing provider ACS. Photograph by Alex Almeida

Your breakfast cereal... the ATM on the corner... the airline ticket you bought... the cell phone that keeps you connected. These things have something significant in common. They all symbolize ways in which the world's largest, most data-intensive companies touch your life.

Those companies have rigorous IT demands, and almost all of them use EMC Symmetrix systems to help support their most important revenue-generating applications. But how does EMC anticipate what kind of storage functionality these customers will be demanding years from now?

It does so by connecting with them on as many levels as possible.

EMC holds frequent Customer Council events exclusively for these high-end customers. It conducts smaller sessions with them on specific technology issues. It holds special executive briefings, sets up one-on-one meetings, maintains daily field contacts, and pursues practically every other thread of communication that might fortify its ties to what is, by any measure, quite a visionary group of storage users.

Using the feedback, the Symmetrix team designs features into a new generation of storage, solving current problems and, hopefully, preventing future ones. (All this communication gives EMC considerable insight into the future trends of the customers' markets.)

Keeping enterprise-scale customers close is what Barry Burke, chief strategy officer for the EMC Storage Division's Symmetrix Product Group, calls the "secret ingredient" to EMC's success in uncovering what the storage technologies of the future should be.

"We are living with them day in and day out," Burke says. "They spend tens of millions of dollars with us annually, so they have a right to tell us just what they need. The requirements they convey to us are a precursor to what's coming in technology."

Staying connected

These are the enterprise customers who helped put EMC on the map decades ago, and EMC has always maintained a close relationship with them. They include FORTUNE 500 banks, securities firms, telcos, broadcast networks, Internet service firms, and transportation, manufacturing, and retail enterprises. Data is mission-critical to these customers. Downtime is unacceptable. Data loss is not an option. Burke hammers that fact home when he points out that, "Our products have carried our customers through major disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Symmetrix technology has enabled both economies and corporations to get back on their feet more quickly."

Until ten years ago, these customers were EMC's sole market focus. As EMC expanded to serve a much broader information infrastructure market, the Symmetrix team redoubled efforts to make sure it wouldn't lose the close connection to the highest of the high end: Not only are they still this company's largest customer segment, but they've kept EMC number one in the enterprise storage market for years, and by a wide margin.

Brian Gallagher, senior vice president and general manager of the Symmetrix Product Group, says keeping these customers happy is important not only to his organization, but also to the company as a whole.

At EMC's Customer Council events, attendees outline their business challenges and priorities, and they tell EMC where they believe IT vendors in general need to partner more closely with them.

Most importantly, the customers get an early view of the ways EMC is proposing to address key requirements. Their feedback has immediate impact on development and design.

As Customer Council events have broadened to represent an ever-expanding range of customers and solutions, EMC's longstanding Symmetrix customers requested a new type of event with Symmetrix as a focal point. Two years ago, the Symmetrix team began hosting customer Technical Advisory Panels (TAPs) just for its usersstorage architects and storage administrators.

TAP sessions are deep-dive gatherings in which EMC engineers discuss what EMC is working on relative to what hands-on Symmetrix users want. "The customers taking part in TAP are great because they are not bashful," Gallagher says. "The feedback we get is unvarnished."

EMC's Symmetrix leadership team has reinstated the Engineering Advocacy Program as well. In it, certain customers are assigned an engineer from EMC who commits to focusing on their technical needs. In turn, the customer's staff participates in EMC residency programsvisiting an EMC lab and training there for 1-2 weeks.

Beyond group sessions, EMC's Symmetrix executives make regular visits to top enterprise customers around the world. Each quarter, Bob Wambach, senior director of product marketing for the EMC Storage Division, holds many in-person conversations with customers. "There's just no substitute for face time," he says. "That's the thing about the big customers. You want and need to shake their hand and look them in the eye. That effort will make any form of subsequent communication more beneficial."

Wambach, Burke, and Gallagher spend significant time and energy updating customers about what EMC is working on, describing the storage trends EMC is observing, and relaying information about popular best practices in use. In turn, they receive invaluable feedback about whether EMC's product plans are on track.

During the past three years, EMC has significantly increased its communication with high-end enterprise storage clients. Gallagher says, "The results have been excellent. We've developed better relationships end to end."

Weighing ideas

Ideas flowing through all of these customer contact points form the shape of future Symmetrix products years in advance.

In the old days, a handful of EMC Engineering executives determined many of the characteristics of new-generation Symmetrix systems. Now, several cross-functional teams, such as the Innovation Management Team and the Product Planning Team, lead this formalized process. They are composed of engineering, development, manufacturing, and marketing employees who meet weekly to vet ideas coming from customer feedback and industry and academic sources.

"Ideas actually come to us from everywhere," says team member Barry Burke. "We all have our networks of experts, and we get additional ideas from seeing customers' use cases and hearing how their environments are changing. We sometimes even get ideas by listening to wacky, off-the-wall requests that force us to think about what's technologically feasible and what isn't."

Banks and financial institutions with truly enormous information infrastructures provide important input, Burke says, but the team also looks for insights from smaller enterprise accounts that are pushing the envelope of technology use.

He recalls, "At a Customer Council back in 2003, many of EMC's largest customers insisted that they saw no need for thin provisioning. But smaller customers told us virtual provisioning might enable them to consolidate their lower storage tiers onto Symmetrix to drive down costs. That input led directly to the Symmetrix 'in-the-box' tiered storage strategy of today."

The Innovation Management Team turns its insights over to the Product Planning Team, which then figures out what products the Symmetrix organization will develop, and in what timeframe. "Our target is generally three or more years out for hardware and one to two years for software," Gallagher says.

Two more teams, the Core Development Team and the Product Management Team, review the execution status of all programs every week. And yet another team meets weekly to make sure the efforts of all the teams are on track to enhance the Total Customer Experience.

"Our record of execution, as a result, has been outstanding," Gallagher says.

Delivering the future they need

Clearly, top enterprise customers have a profound impact on future Symmetrix features.

Several years ago, it was the struggle of these customers to keep pace with ever-expanding amounts of data that helped EMC decide to develop the Virtual Matrix Architecture and EMC Symmetrix V-Max. That decision, in turn, led to a need for multicore processors that could handle the increased performance requirements of a virtualized environment while maintaining energy efficiency.

And it was enterprise customers' demand for less-costly and easier-to-use high-end storage technology that led the Symmetrix organization to totally change the way it built its latest storage system, Burke says. Symmetrix V-Max integrates industry-standard components with EMC custom technology to cut manufacturing and maintenance costs. Because customers have been operating their own ever-growing data centers for years and years, ease of use emerged as a big goal for the Symmetrix team. That led to incorporating more automation in the latest system to simplify storage management.

"Customers were telling us, 'I like what you have; it's just too hard to use,'" Burke says. That message, which he considers the single biggest change in customers' priorities in the past several years, sparked EMC's determination to make Symmetrix V-Max the easiest enterprise storage array on the market to manage and operate.

Customers' feedback about needing systems that are flexible but that still provide unparalleled performance contributed to EMC putting effort into enabling Symmetrix V-Max to scale. With scaling, customers can buy what they need, as they need it.

Through the product development process, enterprise customers provide feedback on everything that is taking shape. They validate what the team has done right, reject what they don't like, and suggest further features that may have been overlooked.

In the case of Symmetrix V-Max, customers provided feedback as early as 2004. In 2006, they did it again, endorsing the scale-out concepts of Symmetrix V-Max as well as some of the policy-based automation concepts of Fully Automated Storage Tiering (FAST). And they validated the Symmetrix V-Max product extensively in 2008.

The road to future products isn't without detours. For example, before the Symmetrix organization decided to use more industry-standard components in Symmetrix V-Max to cut costs, it had pursued a different tactic involving repackaging traditional custom hardware. When the team members realized that this approach wasn't going to shave costs enough to meet customers' demands, they had to make a major course correction.

The Symmetrix team also finds at times that customers, even the savviest of enterprise customers, don't always know what they want. For instance, Burke says, while enterprise-scale users said they wanted the ability to do thin provisioning, not all of them actually made use of that functionality when it became available. Instead, he says, they became very happy with the regular allocation process after EMC cut the time needed to set up a terabyte of storage from one hour down to eight minutes. "We must make sure we fully understand what's behind a customer request," Burke says. "In this case, they said 'thin provisioning,' but they really wanted us to make the 'old way' easier."

And sometimes, as in the case of Enterprise Flash Drive technology, customers don't yet know that they need something. Enterprise customers may wave off this much-faster drive technology as an option because they think it's too expensive, Wambach says. But when he explains it will save them money, particularly when used with Symmetrix V-Max tiered storage, they change their view. The system's FAST technology, slated for general availability later this year, automatically moves data across storage tiers based on the customer's business and user access polices. That makes Enterprise Flash an even better fit for large enterprise customers, and it is a good example of how EMC is adapting and blending technology to solve future needs while lowering costs for customers.

"There's a big part of us that is proactive rather than reactive," Wambach says. "We spend time looking into the future. Ideally, we solve a future problem before customers realize they'll have that problem."

Translating demanding, high-end customer needs into products that must be planned and developed years in advance is an impressive feat akin to fixing a race car while driving it. "We're driving this car down the road at 90 miles per hour, and we're required to change-out some really important parts," Gallagher says. "That's because our customers are driving that car down the road, too, and they want the latest and greatest features in it every year."

EMC is determined to keep its pole position in the enterprise storage race by negotiating all the turns ahead with the help of its top customers.

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